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GMO Labeling Debate Follow-up

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Delicious cherry tomatoes... not quite ripe.

There was a pretty huge response to my take on the GMO labeling debate last Friday. At the time of writing, there are 37 comments (for comparison, my other posts here have had between 0 and 4 comments), and I had a couple of convergent conversations on twitter and google+. I usually like to respond to every comment, but they kinda got away from me over the weekend, so I though I should follow up on a couple of themes that came out in the folks that disagreed with me.

Argument 1: GMO labels aren’t about the safety of the food itself, they’re about informing consumers so that they can chose to avoid [x]

Best exemplified by Kenn Amdahl, who wrote to me in an e-mail (quoted with permission):

I agree with you about the danger of GMOs– I’d eat them. I suspect our bodies can digest proteins just fine even if they’re altered a bit. The reason I wish they were labeled has nothing to do with the plant itself. It’s that the main way they’re modifying plants is to make them “Roundup Ready” so they can spray more pesticides on my food, and my cotton, and my sidewalk.

Similar sentiments were voiced on twitter and in the comments, and I completely understand and agree with the impulse to limit the use of pesticides and herbicides on the food you eat. The trouble with this argument vis-a-vis GMOs is that labeling laws (at least those that have been proposed) don’t actually address the problem. Most types of agriculture (including organic) use pesticides and herbicides, many of which are more toxic than Roundup. Some genetic modifications have nothing to do with pesticides and herbicides. I would completely support a law that required labeling food with the pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers that are used in their production, and/or to give more authority and responsibilities to the regulatory agencies that look at such things. But these regulations should apply equally to all food-crops, not just the genetically engineered ones.

Argument 2: Consumers have a right to know they’re eating GMOs because GMOs are linked to [bad farming practice]

There are many problems with our industrial agricultural system, from monoculture to reliance on a single herbicide or pesticide (like Roundup) to over-reliance on chemically synthesized fertilizers to high fossil fuel use etc etc. The argument here, as far as I can tell, is that because many industrial farming practices are bad, and because GMOs are also used in industrial farming, we should label GMOs so that we can avoid eating industrially farmed food. One example of this argument was expressed by DougAlder in the comments

The safety issue with GMOs is NOT just based on whether they are safe to eat or not – although that is the only side you have presented here. There is also a large question as to whether they are safe for the environment as well, and there the science is not so certain as it is for food safety. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned and two of the biggest are the inability of farms to keep their GMO crops from spreading into the wild, and (here’s where Monsanto is truly evil)causing the evolution of super weeds (Roundup resistant) which in turn requires the use of ever more potent weed killers, which, regardless of the care taken does make its way into the food chain. A reason for labeling GMO foods is so you can avoid buying them thus creating a financial disincentive to use GMO seeds and lessen the above two problems.

These sorts of arguments seem to place the blame for all the bad practices at the feet of GMO, when in reality, GMOs are just one efficient tool that people using bad farming practices can also utilize. This is akin to arguing that because crop dusting huge volumes of chemical pesticides is bad, we should boycott airplanes. Herbicide and pesticide resistance were cropping up long before genetic engineering came onto the stage, necessitating much greater use of those chemicals or turning to more toxic alternatives. The introduction of Roundup ready crops actually began as a wonderful thing in this regard, since Roundup was less toxic than many of the alternatives being used previously, and could be used in much lower amounts. That happy state of affairs was mis-managed and now much larger doses are needed because of resistant weeds, but again, this isn’t the fault of the GMOs. Doug’s other point about the spread of recombinant genes into the ecosystem shouldn’t be of any greater concern than the spread of new beneficial gene variants created by mutation breeding. That is to say, I agree that it’s a concern, but it’s not a concern unique to GMOs.

Many organic foods are industrially farmed, using monoculture and unsustainable farming practices as well, and these practices are just as harmful to food security as when they’re used on GMO crops. If the concern is ever increasing use of pesticides and herbicides, let’s regulate THAT. If the concern is monoculture, or if you want to promote no-till agriculture, let’s pass laws or subsidies addressing THAT. Targeting GMOs is a blunt and imperfect instrument that doesn’t actually address the problems that these people (and I) actually care about.


The bottom line here for me is NOT that GMOs should be unregulated. It’s NOT that GMOs are universally good. It’s NOT that folks on the side of labeling are bad people, or even that they’re wrong. The bottom line is that our current farming practices are not sustainable. We can’t have a few mega corporations controlling our food supply, we can’t continue to use boatloads of energy from fossil fuels to produce food, and we can’t continue to destroy natural habitats for farmland. We need to figure out why many poor people in the US can get plenty of calories but not enough nutrition and others can’t even get enough calories.

The thing I want to make clear here is that, while genetic engineering is a piece of all of these puzzles, it is only a tool. It can be used by big corporations to bump up sales of a chemical, or it can be used by philanthropists that want to feed the world and increase nutrition. You don’t blame crop dusting on planes and you don’t blame rocketry for nuclear missiles. Don’t blame genetic engineering for monoculture or herbicide use. Let’s talk about reforms to farming, let’s talk about feeding the hungry and protecting the environment, but let’s talk about the actual problems rather than using GMOs as a proxy.

Kevin Bonham About the Author: Kevin Bonham is a Curriculum Fellow in the Microbiology and Immunobiology department at Harvard Medical school. He received his PhD from Harvard, where he studied how the cells of the immune system detect the presence of infectious microbes. Find him on Google+, Reddit. Follow on Twitter @Kevbonham.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 20 Comments

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  1. 1. mkass 1:28 pm 11/11/2013

    Big Food and chemical companies, the only real opponents to labeling their GMO products, seem to have unlimited funds to pour into protecting their interests from their own customers. Odd frame of mind, really. Contrast this with Chipotle, who have made labeling and removing GMOs a part if their marketing. The response to their efforts certainly validates the the polling research showing 90 percent of American’s want labeling. ( Big Food/Big Chemical’s biggest fears are the coalescence of this demand for non-GMO foods becoming a force majeure. If Chipotle’s continued success is any barometer, that fear may yet materialize. With reported insider sell-offs of Monsanto stock, Monsanto thinks so too.

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  2. 2. mem from somerville 1:40 pm 11/11/2013

    @mkass: the Chipotle example is great. It shows that it doesn’t require legislation and taxpayer costs to accomplish this philosophical move.

    Of course, they also recently announced price hikes related to this effort. And they have trouble sourcing products. But let them and their customers deal with that. This is exactly the way it should play out.

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  3. 3. ikewinski 2:34 pm 11/11/2013

    This assertion is questionable: “Big Food and chemical companies… seem to have unlimited funds to pour into protecting their interests from their own customers”

    About 80% of the funding against I-522 came from seed companies who sell seeds to farmers, and not food to the consumer. You and I aren’t customers of Monsanto, Bayer or Dupont. In most cases we aren’t even customers of their customers.


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  4. 4. Kevbonham 2:43 pm 11/11/2013

    @ mkass – so… “the only real opponents to labeling their GMO products” are companies that make GMO products? I’ll avoid sending this discussion into Poe’s Law territory, but popular opinion probably shouldn’t be the only thing setting policy. A majority of the public say they wouldn’t eat a tomato if it had genes in it (spoiler alert: all tomatoes have genes in them).

    @ ikewinski – this is a good point. I would imagine that the vast majority of Monsanto’s *actual* customers know exactly what they’re buying.

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  5. 5. OgreMk5 9:12 am 11/12/2013

    In a true marketplace where decisions are made with pocket books, GMOs are winning. The people don’t get to decide, the farmers do and farmers that are not producing organic only produce seem to have accepted GM crops. Of course it’s better for them, they have seeds that require less fertilizer, less water, less pesticide, and/or can resist herbicides… all of which increase their profits.

    In the marketplace, the decision has been made. Those who wish to produce organic crops do. Those who wish to produce GM crops do. Those who wish to do neither, do.

    If anyone wants to grow their own crops, then they are welcome to. I wonder if any conventional farmers (i.e. non-organic growers) were consulted about the Washington bill.

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  6. 6. Kevbonham 10:39 am 11/12/2013

    @ OgreMk5 – Yes, market forces have spoken, but I think a lot of the concern (a concern I share) is that there aren’t sufficient regulations in place (or at least, enforcement of those regulations) to prevent really terrible outcomes. It’s easy to see how many actors all working in their own self interest could cause serious problems w/r/t food security, the environment etc.

    I just wish that we were having THAT conversation instead of rehashing the GMO debate over and over again.

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  7. 7. Nathan055 2:20 pm 11/12/2013

    I just wondering that since so many people like GMO, why they couldn’t perform a human food trials for safety? For example, choose 2,000 volunteers who are willing to pay the food with a reasonable price. Then provide foods they requested but without label at all, only the researcher knows which group eat GMOs. Run it for 10-20 years, we will know the answer.

    Animal study is not sufficient evidence to me.

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  8. 8. Kevbonham 2:36 pm 11/12/2013

    @ Nathan055 – “Run it for 10-20 years, we will know the answer.” That’s precisely the problem. Longitudinal studies of this length are *incredibly* expensive. And you want to include high enough numbers to make it significant (a few thousand at least), and you want their diets to be completely managed by the research team… Such a study is basically impossible.

    Can you think of any new technology that has had to go through such a rigorous evaluation before being accepted? Imagine if cell phones had to go through a 10-20 year testing period before concluding they didn’t cause cancer. Now imagine you had to do that every time you changed the frequency (LTE uses different bandwidths etc). Then add in a new 20 year study for wifi and bluetooth.

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  9. 9. Nathan055 3:49 pm 11/12/2013

    Yeah, medical drugs clinical trials.

    We are talking about food, directly consumed by human being, not the cellphones. I thought I stated very clearly about the volunteers willing to pay for the food. And all researcher need to do is observation and put the volunteer provided medical records together.

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  10. 10. Nathan055 3:53 pm 11/12/2013

    My precondition for the trial is “since so many people love GMO foods”. Otherwise, it will be very expensive.

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  11. 11. Kevbonham 5:51 pm 11/12/2013

    @ Nathan055 – No drugs are actually subjected to multi-decade longitudinal studies before being release. The FDA continues to monitor drugs after they hit the shelves to look for anomalies, but clinical trials are short, a year at the most.

    The cost of the study you describe is not the cost of the food. You said you wanted it to be double blind, so you have to have researchers managing every part of the participant’s diet. You need people gathering health information, and you need people to analyze the data. And you need that to happen for 10 years?

    Not to mention you’d never get that many volunteers for a study like that without paying them or giving them some incentive.

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  12. 12. johnog 12:46 am 11/13/2013

    Does anybody think that today’s 19th Century wheat was no a genetically engineered variant of the original grass? The difference, is, admittedly that the genetic engineering was not done in a lab, but by cross-pollination, and surplus saving of seeds from better producing plants. We still have human directed evolution. If we can speed that up in the lab, it is not intrinsically bad, its what we do with the technology.

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  13. 13. Nathan055 8:37 am 11/13/2013

    Dear Kevbonham: I believe there are statistics studies about human health for even more than 20 years. For example, how did we know effects of smoke to health? The part of gathering the data, I think you can do that without any charge, right? If you can use the time on your blog to the real study.

    Say no or impossible to a real study is much more easier to come here “SAY” yes to GMO.

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  14. 14. Nathan055 8:40 am 11/13/2013

    johnog: Can you give me an example that any crop had gotten a bacteria gene from “cross-pollination”?

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  15. 15. marcbrazeau 10:10 am 11/13/2013


    There aren’t going to be the kind of long term human trials that you are demanding for proof because there is no hypothesis to test.

    There is no hypothesis to test for a few reasons.

    1.) There is no hypothesized mechanism for harm in any of the current GMO crops. Neither from their bred traits or their inherent GMOness. (If inherent GMOness was the issue it would have turned up in the clinical trials for recombinant insulin or the many other biotech medicines. We don’t see insulin dependent diabetics bursting into flaming tumors, do we? No we don’t.)

    We know enough about Bt and the cry proteins to know that there is no mechanism for harm, from our experience with it as pesticide.

    Nor do we have reason to believe that EPSP is a problem.

    2.) We’ve done animal studies to look for potential unforseen problems. They haven’t turned up anyting.

    You start with manageable studies of rats and mice to see if that generates a proof of concept that justifies bigger, more expensive studies. But if there is no proof of concept there is no interest and no funding for expensive testing that nobody thinks will show anything.

    We’ve had long term and/or multi-generational testing on mice, rats, quail and cows. None of that has generated a hypothesis of harm to test. Why would a researcher choose to dedicate years of their life to testing a hypothesis that they don’t believe in just to allay fears that cannot be allayed? Why would anyone put up the millions of dollars necessary for the study you describe? The only groups (industry/government) that have those kind of resources would make the results suspect to people like yourself who just keep raising the standards of evidence to absurd levels when it comes to evidence that doesn’t fit their cultural world view.

    This isn’t terribly satisfying to the anxious lay person. But you have to ask, after all the testing that has been done, why is this the one thing you choose to worry about?

    I don’t imagine you will find it satisfying that science isn’t conducted to your specifications, but you are also free to eat an organically grown diet and combined with food certified by the Non GMO Project. They also have a helpful free phone app.

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  16. 16. Kevbonham 1:30 pm 11/13/2013

    @ Nathan055 (re: #13) – Yes, but those were not double-blind controlled trials of the sort you describe. They are retrospective. Such studies *have* been done for GMOs, and have not found anything. Also see marcbrazeau’s comment.

    (re: #14) – First of all, why is the answer to your question germane to the discussion? Look up naturalistic fallacy.

    Second, agrobacterium is used in biotech specifically because it can add genes to plants. There are also numerous examples of gene transfer between plants and bacteria and plants and viruses. One example, after about 2 minutes of searching

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  17. 17. Nathan055 8:19 am 11/14/2013

    marcbrazeau: I don’t think you know there are many drug candidates had passed in vitro\in vivo\animal tests, but failed at clinical trial stages. Animal tests can only tell you maybe\possible, but never can be a confirmation. Otherwise all pharmaceutical companies will be happy to death.

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  18. 18. Nathan055 8:40 am 11/14/2013

    Kevbonham: Could you please provide me a link about those kind of studies (20 years follow up) on GMOs? Thanks.

    Also I want to see the study results of Bt Cry protein used on GMO has no harm to human cells. Since there are many studies on this Cry proteins, which proved they has the ability to kill human cancer cells. Although those cancer cell killing cry proteins do not have insecticidal ability, but I don’t see any research show that the insecticidal cry don’t have the ability to kill cancer cells — which I think is a very important study and will not cost much.

    For agrobacterium adds gene to plants, it is a natural selection and must spend more thousands years. I can see on the way to the success there must be thousands of failers who delivered the wrong genes. But Bt cry protein is a totally different story —- for example, see my point above and we don’t know in the future what we may find out.

    The example of plant to bacteria is unrelated to the discussion, considering bacteria has much higher mutated efficiency than plant.

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  19. 19. Nathan055 8:46 am 11/14/2013

    I forgot mentioning that the cry proteins with cancer cell killing ability are classified in four groups, two of them have highly identical amino acids sequence with the GMO cry proteins.

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  20. 20. Silenus7 8:49 am 11/14/2013

    When he was about five, my younger grandson got a book called “yummy or Yucky?” That is the one thing we should have on food labels, beyond the nutritional info: Yucky or Yummy.

    A food should be labeled “Yucky” if it has any of the following characteristics:

    1. Was produced by slave labor, anything from the kidnapped children forced to work on cocoa plantations in Africa to underpaid workers who lack benefits in the US.

    2. Was grown with pesticides or fertilizers or antibiotics, or GMO modifications that either are a danger to human health or the environment.

    3. Was grown under inhumane conditions, for example chickens grown in cages they can’t move around in.

    Without such labeling, it is harder to figure out if a food is yummy or yucky, but still easy enough to inform our choices. Monsanto may be able to screw up elections, but it can’t stop me from voting with my dollars.

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